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Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College

The Electoral College was created to help white Southerners maintain their disproportionate influence in national governance.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the provenance of the Electoral College, to paraphrase Ronald Takaki, is grounded in questions of racialized ‘insiderism’ and ‘outsiderism.’ To this end, the Electoral College is responsible for the fact that four of the first five U.S. presidents were white, slave-holding men from Virginia. The “Virginia” variable is key here, as Virginia held the largest population of enslaved black men, women, and children from the inception of the “peculiar institution” until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

In 1787, white men of status met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution. Questions of elections, taxation, and governance, among others, were debated vigorously. One of the most contentious themes considered over the course of the four-month convention was by what process to elect a president.

Two months into the meeting, Pennsylvania lawyer James Wilson proposed direct election of the president. Some delegates lamented that an “uneducated” populace would be incapable of the sort of self-governance required to ensure a salutary direct democracy. Such an elitist concern, however, was not what occupied the minds of most delegates, and especially those from the South. James Madison—a slaveholder from Virginia—worried that such a system would compromise the political influence of the slaveholding South, a region of the country that on a eligible voter population-basis would nearly always lose to the North in a direct election system. Madison opined:“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors [through the Electoral College] obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

In a direct election system, the North would have outnumbered the South (which had a large population but far fewer eligible voters), whose roughly 550,000 enslaved black people were disenfranchised. Delegates from the South generally supported Madison’s idea of the Electoral College over a direct election system because it was based solely on population volume, not citizenship status or enfranchisement. In conjunction, and at Madison’s urging, the convention agreed to count each enslaved black person as three-fifths of a citizen for the purpose of calculating each state’s representation in the Electoral College and in the allotment of congressional seats.
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